Among record collectors there is a certain type of disc that is often seen as very desirable, yet falls well below the general radar. These discs tend to be scarce, not necessarily rare, and hardly ever appear on compilations. This may be due to the fact that they are usually not easily classifiable by genre, and almost never fit cleanly into typological categories beloved by collectors or dealers. For some purists, they are often seen as guilty pleasures. They are rarely written about. Evidence of their existence tends to travel via a sort of bush telegraph, an oral tradition of the vinyl-obsessed, a communication network still barely examined by anthropologists or sociologists.
In 1968, Cincinnati-based producer and businessman Lou Ukelson founded the Vetco label. At the time, Ukelson was best known as the owner of the Jimmie Skinner Music Center, which he had acquired after the death of founder Lou Epstein. The shop was named after local country star Jimmie Skinner, who had lent his name, but actually had only a very small financial interest in the enterprise. Modeled on Ernest Tubb Records in Nashville, it was one of the few places in southern Ohio at the time that sold small-label, regional country and bluegrass records. Like so many record store owners before and after him, Ukelson found the shop to be the perfect venue from which to promote and distribute his own label. In its first year of existence, Vetco released a handful of 45s and LPs by local country and bluegrass artists, most of them regulars on the local club and festival circuits. In the spring of 1969, however, the label released a 45 by a complete unknown, one that was destined to become something of a minor cult object among collectors.
How Jo Anne Stokes—a junior at Oak Hills High School in the leafy, green, western fringes of the city—ended up recording two of her self-penned tunes for Vetco is still a bit of a mystery. Her father, Lincoln J. “Link” Stokes, was a senior FBI agent who later, in 1977, would become Hamilton County’s first Republican sheriff in three decades. As political success usually requires a wide acquaintance with the movers and shakers of the local community, an educated guess would be that somehow the record came about through his connections.
The resulting single, “Weeds Above My Grave,” is one of the darker small-label folk records to emerge from the era. The idea of the introspective teenager who sits in her room and writes dark poetry or songs is now something of a cliché. Our usual image of this sort of teen, though, would be of an outsider, someone who endures high school rather than embraces it, someone who navigates by her own star. At least on the surface, Stokes seems to defy this image. Her high school yearbook paints her as a serious student, one who “does the right thing” as opposed to rebelling. She was active in the Future Teachers of America, the Girls’ Athletic Association, the school’s Concert Choir, and was a member of the National Honor Society. But art can often reveal the tempests beneath a calm surface, and it is difficult to listen to the lyrics of the A-side of her first single without concluding that there may have been quite a bit of turmoil behind the facade of the high-achieving, straight-A student Jo Anne Stokes.
“Weeds Above My Grave” is a minor keyed, dirge-like, plaintive cry of despair. With lines like “I was pushed around for 18 years / Till I couldn’t take it no more,” it’s difficult to read the tune as anything but a plea for escape from an unhappy situation. The challenges of life as a teenager who bristles against the expectations of family or society are well known. Whether her case was one of an oppressive home life, issues with personal identity, or just a general existential dissatisfaction with reality must remain the subject of speculation for the moment. Towards the end of the song, she sings: “I’ve known the loneliness and misery / Of a life that was lived in vain.” A great part of the song’s charm is that this exercise in past reflection is written from the perspective of someone whose own life is just on the cusp of beginning. While its overall vibe doesn’t quite reach the level of hopelessness often labeled as “loner folk,” its profound depths of teenage angst, along with the subtle hook of the tune itself, create the perfect storm that draws collectors to the disc.
In 1970, the year she graduated from high school, Stokes released a second disc for the Vetco label. This was also the year she moved to Indianapolis to begin studies at Butler University. There she pledged to the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and served as organizations editor of the Butler yearbook. Her membership in the Student Education Association, as well as her earlier membership in Future Teachers of America, hint that she likely majored in Education. Butler’s 1971 and 1972 yearbooks show Jo Anne as active and engaged in the life of the university. She apparently left Butler after her sophomore year, however, and there the record becomes blurry for two decades. It comes back into focus with her father’s obituary in 1993, which has her living in Centerville, Ohio, near Dayton. A quarter century later she is mentioned as a survivor in her mother’s obituary. This is the last we know of her for certain.
Interestingly, both of Jo Anne Stokes’ singles were entirely local productions. The composer, artist, label, pressing plant (Queen City Album), distributor, and primary retailer were all located in the greater Cincinnati area. From the moment Jo Anne scribbled the lyrics onto paper in her bedroom, until the first consumer picked up a copy of the disc at the Jimmie Skinner Music Center, all aspects of production were done within the metro area. While this is not uncommon in music industry capitals like Nashville or Los Angeles, it’s almost unheard of in other places, which shows that Cincinnati was a more vital and self-contained music town than is commonly credited.
“Weeds Above My Grave” is a good record, but it’s not a great record. It’s scarce, but it’s not exactly rare. It doesn’t fit neatly into any of the genres that inspire 45 collectors to compete in bidding wars that can drive prices into the stratosphere. It’s even a bit of an anachronism, as it sounds stylistically like it could have been released five to seven years earlier than it was. To my knowledge, this article is the first serious examination of this recording or of Jo Anne Stokes as an artist. Even then, we still have only the framework of a story. But I think a big part of what makes this disc intriguing to collectors is the very idea that beneath these skeletal details lies a much richer tale. A young woman’s smoky alto delivery of a haunting, dark—even morbid—self-penned tune, coupled with its release on a small, midwestern label, creates a certain picture within the mind of the collector. Perhaps this almost unconscious assumption that beneath these surface details lies a worthwhile story to be told, is the reason it regularly sells for $100 or more. The idea of an anonymous, “real” person living in flyover country in the late 1960s, a teenager pouring the darkness of her soul into a microphone in some unnamed studio, is intriguing. And it is the mental image that this setting evokes, combined with the bleakness from the grooves of the record itself, that has created something of a minor cult around this disc.
Jo Anne Stokes Discography
Vetco Records 508 (March 1969) A Weeds Above My Grave B A Job Well Done
Vetco Records 520 (1970) A My Sunshine Journey B There Go All the Children
When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Luboš Kohoutek was working at the Hamburg-Bergedorf Observatory in West Germany. Watching events unfold at home, the young astronomer made the difficult decision to remain in the west, even though his visa was due to expire. It was only after the discovery of the comet named for him that the legality of his presence in the country was finally settled. In March 1973, Kohoutek realized that a faint fuzzy spot that appeared on a number of photographs taken in the direction of the constellation Hydra was an unknown comet. Soon it became obvious that the object was headed in the direction of our solar system and would be visible to the naked eye in a matter of months. Given its suspected properties, the scientific community predicted that it would put on a spectacular display, likely surpassing any celestial event in living memory. What scientists did not predict, however, was that the comet would turn out to be more important as a cultural phenomenon than a scientific one. The seeds of Kohoutek mania had been sown.
In the spring of 1970, a book called Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain appeared in American bookstores. Authors Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder recounted their findings from a trip in which they uncovered the “astounding facts behind psychic research in official laboratories from Prague to Moscow.” Much of the book dealt with the situation in Czechoslovakia, which at that time was a hotbed of new ideas and active research in parapsychology. While in Prague, the pair met researcher Zdenek Rejdak, perhaps best remembered today for coining the term “psychotronics.” They also met Karel Drbal, who had combined French dowser Antoine Bovis’ idea that food stored beneath pyramidal structures would not rot, with an earlier belief that razor blades could be kept sharp if aligned correctly with the Earth’s magnetic field. He patented the concept, and for a while marketed small, cardboard pyramids in which to store razor blades. Drbal’s story intrigued Ostrander and Schroeder enough that they dedicated an entire chapter to it, titled “Pyramid Power and the Riddle of the Razor Blades.”
Max Toth picked up a copy of Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, and was fascinated by what he read. The book inspired him to begin making plans of his own to travel to Czechoslovakia, using it as something of a guide. While there he befriended Karel Drbal, who gifted him the rights to manufacture and sell his cardboard pyramids in the US. This eventually led to Toth’s own 1974 book, Pyramid Power. He also met Zdenek Rejdak, who pitched him the idea of a “psychotronic conference” to be held in Prague. Toth was offered the role of co-chair, responsible for locating and inviting researchers from the Americas, with Rejdak taking the same role for Europe. Back in the States, Toth began a letter-writing campaign to gauge interest in the conference. Positive responses were forwarded to Prague. Once all the speakers were identified and the conference had taken definite shape, Rejdak wrote to Toth telling him his participation was no longer necessary. Toth interpreted this to mean that Rejdak wanted both the revenue and the notoriety generated by the conference for himself.
The First International Congress of Parapsychology and Psychotronics was held in Prague in June 1973. Czechoslovakia was not a place most westerners traveled to in those days, so, when American physician Paul Ruegsegger was invited to present a paper on his work in “thermograpy,” he decided to bring his family along to share in the exotic adventure. His son Ted later remembered the event as being “like any high-class technical conference—elegant facilities, good food, plenary sessions, multiple tracks for presented papers, and even simultaneous translation for most of the languages spoken.” He observed that “[t]he delegates made, and received, claims of extrasensory perception, telepathy, telekinesis, out-of-body experiences, dowsing, levitation, and stuff I never heard of with the same tone and manner one might use to describe uncontroversial findings in biology or physics.” He added, “To be fair, there were a few honest research papers that presented interesting observations without wild claims; for them, sadly, the audience was reserved in its acclaim.”
Among the other westerners presenting at the conference were experimental psychologist William G. Braud and proponent of alternative healing Herbert L. Beierle. Given that the event was held behind the Iron Curtain during the height of the Cold War, it is striking that some of the speakers had alleged, and not-so-secret, connections to western intelligence agencies. Most prominent among these was Ingo Swann, who was at the time associated with the CIA-funded Stanford Research Institute and later with the legendary Stargate Project. This category also included attendees Stanley Krippner and Carl Schleicher, of the now mostly forgotten Washington-area think tank Mankind Research Unlimited.
According to an informational brochure released by the organization, Mankind Research Unlimited was founded in 1966, “to collect, study, develop and apply extensive and proliferating data on what may be called ‘the frontiers of science.’” The ultimate goal was to “stimulate research and technology applications in areas beneficial to mankind.” According to the brochure, MRU was interested in, among other things, biophysics, bionic studies, biocybernetics, biofeedback, telepathy, biologically generated fields, metapsychiatry and the ultraconscious mind, human subjective states, bioluminescence, radiesthesia, dowsing, and ESP. It went on to explain that many of its areas of interest were those traditionally seen as unorthodox by established scientists. This in turn had created a sort of scientific blind spot, “to the point where, in certain critical areas, the United States is falling behind existing technological state of the art in other countries of the world, notably those in Eastern and Western Europe.” In other words, MRU seemed to see itself at the forefront of a sort of psychotronic space race.
Of course, MRU’s public relations material did not specifically mention any connection to the intelligence community. Scanning through the biographical summaries of its researchers, however, it’s not difficult to read between the lines. While most seem to have had straightforward academic medical, scientific, and technical backgrounds, a number of individuals were described as having held military and government jobs that would certainly at the very least have required a security clearance. Perhaps the closest MRU came to divulging its true place in the web of clandestine organizations is the brochure’s disclosure that one of its principal researchers, Christopher Bird, had been the Washington representative for the Rand Corporation.
The June 1980 issue of Covert Action Information Bulletin, a publication dedicated to exposing secret nefarious governmental activity, carried a lengthy exposé on Mankind Research Unlimited, written by A. J. Weberman. The narrative is partly gleaned from the author’s unnamed “young friend” who allegedly knew MRU researcher Stanley Krippner. The friend had “succeeded in spending some time alone” in the MRU offices, where he “made off with a number of documents.” The article details the military and intelligence backgrounds of Carl Schleicher, Klippner, and Bird, among others, before reaching its intended conclusion: “For an organization devoted to peaceful activities, MRU is rather short of pacifists; its staff includes a group of Dr. Strangeloves with multiple ties to the armaments, aerospace, military, and intelligence establishment. . . . ’Peaceful applications’ of their research are the last things on their minds.” I will leave it to the interested reader to explore further and decide the extent of MRU’s involvement with the clandestine services, and whether this was simply a case of the US government throwing research funds at areas they knew the Soviet Bloc was also exploring, or something much more sinister.
Working in MRU’s offices in 1973 was a young typist named David Savage. At some point, either before or after Carl Schleicher and Stanley Klippner’s trip to Prague, he had heard talk around the office about the First International Congress of Parapsychology and Psychotronics and the bizarre and wondrous things being discussed there. These were, of course, the same sorts of bizarre and wondrous things being explored by MRU. This inspired him to write a song about the event, called “Parapsychology Congress Stomp and Romp.” Somehow Schleicher heard about the tune and decided that it was the perfect vehicle to raise funds for MRU.
A recording session was booked at John Burr’s JRB Sound Studios in Bethesda, Maryland. Savage went to the studio to audition in preparation for recording, but Burr wasn’t happy with Savage’s voice and instead hired local musician Holly Garber to do vocals. He also hired a drummer, and Burr himself played ARP synthesizer on the session.
“Parapsychology Congress Stomp and Romp” had a bouncy, singalong feel a bit reminiscent of the New Vaudeville Band, inhabiting a space somewhere between novelty, pastiche, and bubblegum. Its meter made effective use of the multisyllabic vocabulary of parapsychology: “Make a telepathic connection, in a bioenergetic direction, make a teleconnectic course correction of the future of humanity.” Ultimately, it could be read as a parody of the many dance crazes of the previous decade, enjoining listeners to “do the parapsychologic, esoteric, psychotronic, Czechoslovakian Congress stomp and romp.” Another line repeated in the song, “ride high on the comet,” places the song firmly within the mindset of 1973.
The announcement of the comet Kohoutek’s coming appearance earlier in the year had created quite a stir. Cultic millenarians, extremist Christian fundamentalists, amateur astrologers, strip mall psychics, credulous ufologists, and many adherents of various New Age philosophies all interpreted the comet’s arrival in different ways. The one thing they had in common was a belief that this astral traveler carried great meaning. For some it was a warning that great calamities were about to befall the planet. For others, it was a beacon announcing that the Age of Aquarius had finally arrived. For those who interpreted the comet in a positive light, terms like “cosmic consciousness” were commonly used when discussing its meaning.
The second song recorded at the session was aimed at taking full advantage of this growing comet mania. Savage’s “Kohoutek” was an almost bombastic counterpoint to the playfulness of the flip side. If the comet were a New Age-themed television series, this could be its theme song. With lines like, “Cosmic creation of the conscious void,” the tune felt specifically aimed at those who interpreted Kohoutek as the perfect symbol of the New Age. In fact, in a rather clunky metaphor, it painted the comet as something Messianic: “The gypsy fortune teller tells us what our fate will be. The cosmic rock and roller has come to set all of us free.” The addition of electric guitar added a radio-friendly vibe to the track. The song’s centerpiece, however, a repetitive chanting of the comet’s name, hinted at a ritualistic primitivism of the sort that might cause the less scientifically-minded to cower in awe of an unknown light in the sky.
With recording completed, the masters were sent to Nashville, and three thousand copies were pressed as a 45 on the Mankind Music label, credited to Herbie Angell. There was no accident in the selection of material for the disc. Schleicher had very specific ideas about where and how the record should be marketed.
In late 1973, a flyer created by the Mankind Research Foundation (the non-profit arm of MRU) appeared around the Washington DC metro area. It announced the availability of a charter flight from Washington to San Francisco to attend the Kohoutek Celebration of Consciousness. For $298 the cosmic tourist received round-trip airfare on Freelandia—a short-lived New-York-based travel club that owned one plane, painted “Buddha yellow”—as well as tickets to the event. The flyer also mentioned that, “Our own KOHOUTEK consciousness-inspired song entitled, ‘KOHOUTEK’, composed by Washingtonian David Savage, will make its debut at the celebration.”
By all accounts, initial planning for the Kohoutek Celebration of Consciousness began almost immediately after the comet’s existence was announced. It was the brainchild of Ann Howell, a former journalist who was heavily involved in the human potential movement. The event took place at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium on January 26 and 27, 1974, a full ten days after the comet’s peak visibility had passed. Slated to speak at the conference, among many others, were Stanley Krippner, Claudio Naranjo, John Lilly, Warner Erhard, Charles Tart, Ira Einhorn, Jacques Vallée, Jerry Rubin, Brad Steiger, Christopher Bird, and Uri Geller’s sidekick and primary cheerleader Andrija Puharich. Across its 50 rooms, participants were promised the ability to explore such things as aikido, Kirlian photography, psychosynthesis, holography, psychic therapy, biorhythms, polarity therapy, gestalt, dreamwork, biofeedback, and bioenergetics, along with many other topics. Musical acts were also scheduled. These included a group made up of followers of Yogi Bhajan, The Sufi Choir, and the legendary cartoon mystic Korla Pandit, who opened the festivities early on the first day.
Two of the passengers on the Freelandia flight to San Francisco were David Savage and another MRU employee, Tom “Mad Dog” Howell, carrying all 3,000 copies of the newly released 45. Carl Schleicher had paid for them to fly out and man a booth at the Celebration to attempt to sell the records. At this point in the narrative it becomes apparent that Schleicher knew just enough about the music industry to fail at it, the fate of so many would-be moguls who have seen music as a path to easy money. Just after the disc was recorded, he had hired a publicist to pitch the record to distributors in New York. According to Savage, their response was, “Let’s wait and see what the comet does.” In my experience this is a polite way of saying, “No thanks.” Had Schleicher been savvier, he may have used the publicist to pitch the disc to the Washington-Baltimore radio stations as a local novelty tune, or better yet, tried his luck with San Francisco stations, which may have offered a more receptive demographic. In any case, in those days no matter how good a recording was, a successful release was usually supported by a combined foundation of radio airplay, the artist’s active touring to promote the disc, and a robust distribution strategy making it available to those who wanted to buy it. Not understanding this basic concept often led to disappointment. And a true disappointment it was: Savage and Howell only sold two copies of the disc at the event. What’s more, these were the only two copies that ever sold during its original offering.
In a later San Francisco Examiner article, Berna Rauch said that Freelandia was not able to fly back the nearly 50 passengers it had brought out for the Celebration. She added that she was unable to discover why this was so, and conjectured that they might all still be stranded in San Francisco. Even though Mankind Research’s flyer clearly stated that the flight was round trip, other sources have mentioned that Freelandia often offered only one-way flights, leaving passengers to return on their own steam, although it is not at all clear what logic might lie behind such an impractical business model. David Savage doesn’t remember why he wasn’t able to fly back, but told me that he and Howell had to procure a “drive away” car in order to return home. Before turning east, the pair headed south to Los Angeles to visit the Griffith Observatory. While there, they also dropped in to visit Thelma Moss and view her work in Kirlian photography, including one of the famous “torn leaf” photographs. It took three days for Savage and Howell to drive home with a box of 2,998 records on the backseat, sleeping in movie theaters to save on the cost of motels.
In modern culture, the Comet Kohoutek has become a metaphor for the disappointment that follows something that has been over-hyped. The original predictions by scientists were that its arrival would be accompanied by a display so brilliantly mind-blowing that people would remember it their entire lives. This was based on a misunderstanding of the object’s true makeup, however, and when the comet did arrive, it was nothing but a vague smudge in the sky.
Mankind Research seems to have survived as an organization until Carl Schleicher’s death in late 1999. David Savage continues to write and perform music. He tells me that he believes he still has a box of 100 of the ill-fated 45. Shortly after Schleicher’s death, he tried to discover what happened to the other 2,898 copies, without success. I know of four copies that are currently owned by collectors or dealers, so it appears that at least some of them made it out into the world.
Even though the comet did not “set us all free,” usher in a new age of “cosmic consciousness,” nor even provide an entertaining evening of celestial fireworks, some were reluctant to give up on the idea that Kohoutek’s passage through our solar system was a meaningful event. In late March 1974, United Press International quoted astrologer Joseph Goodavage as saying, “Just because the comet has fizzled as it passed [E]arth does not necessarily mean that we aren’t feeling its effects. There has always been an increase in violence, extremely radical revolutionary movements and natural disasters [when comets pass by.]” This could either be read as an example of cognitive dissonance, or as evidence that Goodavage was still trying to keep interest alive in hopes of selling more copies of his book, The Comet Kohoutek: Greatest Fiery Chariot of All Time, released in late 1973.
In her San Francisco Examiner article mentioned above, Berna Rauch summed up the experience of Kohoutek mania nicely. Writing some four months after the Kohoutek Celebration of Consciousness, she remembered the event as having “a sense of some beautiful, sincere people, some wacky ones, and some cosmic con men. A sense of ‘consciousness-raising’ as a new American industry. A sense of the ‘psychic flea circus’ as the new American convention. A sense of guru-following as another form of religious ‘groupieness.’ A feeling that there are psychic mysteries still to be unveiled, which will lead to more questions and more conventions.”
(Special thanks to David Savage for sharing his memories of MRU and the Celebration of Kohoutek Consciousness, as well as photographs and items from his personal archive.)
Since 2005, when Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher first used the term “hauntology” to describe the music being released on the Ghost Box label and by fellow travelers working in a similar vein, the word has gone fractal. What I mean by this, is that it has taken on new shades of meaning without losing its original sense. Although the term is admittedly sometimes misused, in general this seems to be one of those rare cases where a word moves from academia into the wider (albeit still somewhat fringe) culture, and becomes all the richer for it. As part of this evolution, thousands of pages have been written during the last decade or so on the implications of hauntology in the context of popular culture. But within the more casual discourse of social media and the blogosphere, the word has come to be used in a rather narrow sense: to refer to the early 1970s aesthetic that Jim Jupp and Julian House of Ghost Box mined so eloquently in those early days. This use of the term and the associated revival of this particular aesthetic, one that previously really had no name, has been something of a fascination of mine for a long while.
Often electronic, sometimes folkloric, this aesthetic lurked in the theme songs of children’s television programs, TV idents, library music, public information films, and in the sleek, modern, northern European design sensibility found in progressive educational media. In its day it was simultaneously very widespread, and mostly ephemeral. Although on the surface this look and sound could often feel optimistic—sometimes even saccharinely so—there was an ever-present, underlying sense of darkness and unease within it. It was as if this aspect of culture were already mourning its own demise, which according to Mark Fisher was to come with the arrival of neoliberalism and late capitalism, crouching unseen, ready to spring, just over the temporal garden wall.
When I first heard the early Ghost Box releases, they immediately triggered in me a very deep sense of recognition. It was like meeting someone you once knew well, decades ago, but could no longer remember their name or even how you knew them. The records’ striking graphic design, along with their titles—evocative of an electro-etheric pastoralism: Farmer’s Angle, Sketches and Spells, and The Willows—scratched at something in the back of my brain. According to the dominant narrative, however, this should not have been the case. Most everything that has been written about cultural hauntology—a usage coined by Mark Fisher, and one that I use to refer to the aesthetic we are discussing here—has focused on how very British it all is. Although I grew up during the era in which it thrived, I was born and raised in the United States, and have never lived in Britain. So why was my response so immediate and powerful, if this music and its associated design aesthetic were based on exclusively British cultural forms?
Television was ground zero for the early Ghost Box sound. Much of the popularity and growth of interest in cultural hauntology has been due to audio- and video-archaeologists mining the archive for long-forgotten (mainly British) television programs from the 1960s and 1970s. The BBC’s experimental sound department, the Radiophonic Workshop, was responsible for much of the theme and incidental music for the more “out there” broadcasts of the era. Because of this, its output has gained legendary status among hauntologists. The Radiophonic Workshop would go on to achieve a degree of international fame even among those not particularly interested in things hauntological, as it was responsible for the original theme to the smash hit series Doctor Who.
What is most always overlooked in hauntologically-centered writing on the early 1970s media landscape—the section on American hauntology in Simon Reynolds’ Retromania is a glaring example—is that this aesthetic was already present throughout the industrialized world by this time, and bits of British cultural hauntology could be found around the globe, including in North America. What was mainstream in Britain may have been slightly fringe in the US, with British television programs sometimes being repurposed into minor cinematic releases. They still made it across the Atlantic, though, and the sounds of the Radiophonic Workshop arrived with them. The film Dr. Who and the Daleks was released in the US in July 1966, and it was shown across the country, eventually being rerun on television. The early Jon Pertwee-era episodes of the Doctor Who series were first syndicated to American television in 1972. These weren’t particularly successful, but when the Tom Baker episodes were sold to PBS in 1978, the series became a familiar part of American geek culture. In the wake of this success, BBC Records released at least six LPs of theme music and sound effects by the Radiophonic Workshop for the American market between 1979 and 1982.
Glimpses of this hauntological aesthetic could sometimes be found in the dim corners of the broadcast day of the big three commercial networks, especially late at night or very early in the morning, but the place where it really thrived in the US was on public broadcasting stations, both radio and television. In his book Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher makes much of the fact that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was state funded, allowing a group of educated experimentalists relatively free rein to create the distinctive, often eerie, electronic sound that eventually emerged. In his opinion, it was the arrival of neoliberalism that destroyed this idyllic situation. While not an exact parallel, in the US the state-founded and taxpayer-supported Corporation for Public Broadcasting has long been a major source of funding for National Public Radio (NPR), the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and its immediate predecessor, National Educational Television (NET). A major difference from the British model is that public broadcasting in this country is also literally publicly funded, through individual and corporate donations.
American public broadcasting has long been something of a haven for an open-minded sort of “high culture,” that in the early 1970s included experimental uses of electronic music. But there is an even tighter connection between the BBC and its American analog. In the summer of 1970, BBC Radiophonic Workshop co-founder Desmond Briscoe—who would later compose much of the soundtrack for the influential 1972 BBC TV movie The Stone Tape—traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, to hold a workshop on “radiophonics” for employees of public radio from around the US. During the workshop, Briscoe and the attendees created a radio version of Tom Stoppard’s play The Dissolution of Dominic Boot, complete with electronic score and sound effects. A couple of shorter experimental pieces using local station WHA’s new Putney VCS3 synthesizer were also created. This shows that as early as 1970, a native spirit of sonic experimentation in broadcasting, complete with mini-Moog, was flourishing in the US just as it was in Britain, perhaps just a bit further below the mainstream radar.
As interest in cultural hauntology has grown, Nigel Kneale’s screenplays have come to represent the British hauntological zeitgeist nearly as much as the output of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. But his work was certainly well represented on US cinema screens, at least via the Quatermass films. Later, these same films would end up as late night reruns on television. Eastern European cinema of the era is also often cited as part of this hauntological aesthetic, many examples of which crossed the Iron Curtain into Britain. Somewhat surprisingly, some of these made it into mainstream American homes via the CBS Children’s Film Festival. The series ran from 1967 to 1984, and showed almost exclusively non-US films, many from the USSR and Yugoslavia. The late 1960s explosion of Moog-mania should also not be forgotten. Although mostly seen as novelty at the time, the work of electronic composers such as Walter/Wendy Carlos, Gershon Kingsley, and Jean-Jacques Perrey was a familiar sound throughout mainstream American media of the period.
Another important point is that many of the researchers and experimentalists who created the groundwork that allowed this sound to exist in the first place came from around the globe: Leon Theremin in the USSR, Dick Raaymakers and Henk Badings at the Philips Research Laboratories in the Netherlands, and Robert Moog in the US. Even the great names from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop did not emerge fully formed from some exclusively British petri dish: Delia Derbyshire worked early on with Italian composer Luciano Berio; Daphne Oram became inspired by electronic music after a visit to RTF studios in Paris in the 1950s; and Desmond Briscoe was hugely influenced by Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen. By diffusing the center of hauntological gravity from the UK into the wider world, I don’t mean to downplay the huge influence the British media had on the development of this aesthetic. No other single country even came close to achieving the perfect storm of experimentalism and fatalism—painted upon a canvas of dark, ancestral memories that were suppressed beneath a façade of social conformity—that resulted in what we now call British cultural hauntology. But the wider aesthetic did exist elsewhere.
Much of what has been written about the early Ghost Box releases focuses heavily on nostalgia, and implies that these discs triggered specific memories of the forgotten corners of British media. Listening to these recordings, though, it immediately becomes clear that the memory-mechanics of Belbury Poly, the Focus Group, and The Advisory Circle functioned at a deeper level. To the extent that direct samples appeared, they tended to be obscure, taken from the dusty shelves of archival almost-memory. The Ghost Box crew did not cite familiar sonic quotations from past decades, but immersed themselves in a selective vision of the past that included BBC children’s programs, horror movie soundtracks, and public information films, and then created new works that were so perfectly evocative of that aesthetic as to resonate strongly with those of us who spent our formative years within it.
Because I grew up exposed to the British cultural hauntology that made its way into US media, as well as to its native American variety—the electronic PBS ident, synthesizer-driven incidental music, early morning anti-smoking commercials, and educational films in school, all of which evinced a version of this same aesthetic—I had effectively the same visceral response to the Ghost Box releases that many Brits describe. The effect was not that caused by a memory of something specific, but the memory of a particular mood, something bordering on emotion, long forgotten, which the recreation of this sound brought back forcefully. Jupp and House had inadvertently hit on a certain alchemy that had cultural power far beyond their original idea of recreating an imaginary version of early 1970s British media. This brings us to Frederic Jameson’s idea of nostalgia that is not nostalgia—cited by both Reynolds and Fisher—in which longing is not for an historical period, but for a form. It is the not the details that move us, but the feeling.
Again, I am not suggesting that the British influence on what has become a full-blown hauntological subculture should be deemphasized. In fact, I feel strongly that Britain is very much the spiritual center for this aesthetic. But recognizing that during the period in which it flourished it also existed across the industrialized world opens up a huge new area of enquiry. This examination of its sources from an international perspective was already effectively begun—although rarely, if ever, using the term hauntology—by blogs from the last decade such as Toys and Techniques and Dispokino. They also did a wonderful job of showing the graphic design aesthetic that accompanied the musical aspect. But as fascinating as these blogs were, they presented their finds anecdotally, leaving much room for further research. I’m left wondering, how did this hauntological aesthetic manifest itself in Germany, Finland, Poland, or Japan? I would like to see researchers from other countries, those familiar with their own local media landscapes from the decades in question, approach this topic.
Closer to home, to my knowledge much of the eerie, electronic, incidental music done for NET, early PBS, and the various small US educational film companies has barely been examined by researchers. There are also almost certainly “lost” public information and educational films in this dormant American archive. What gems, what new cultural heroes might be hiding within this unexplored trove, or in those of other countries? Whether in the US or elsewhere, there is still much work to be done in simply unearthing, cataloguing, and documenting these sources without getting too bogged down in concepts of “lost futures.” Remapping this early 1970s aesthetic from a global perspective could lead to new interpretations, new voices, new ideas. As rich and engrossing as the topic may be, these days it often feels like anything relevant about British cultural hauntology has already been said. So, working towards a clearer vision of how this aesthetic moved and morphed throughout international media could refresh and revivify a discourse that is now beginning to feel a bit overworked and even moribund.
Christmas music is not a genre, but a body of compositions that share a common theme. In the world of popular music, the canonical Christmas songs—“Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”— have been recorded and re-recorded so exhaustively (even ad nauseum) that they probably make up the bulk of the popular holiday discography. There also exists a huge body of original Christmas songs in the wider popular music field, whether pop, rock, soul, funk, country, or even reggae. Admittedly, the vast majority of these can be unbearably schmaltzy, intolerably saccharine, embarrassingly maudlin, or just plain grating. But hidden amongst these slabs of good intentions gone wrong are a few gems. Below, I present five little-known 45s from the heart of the 1960s, all either released privately or on very small labels. For me, each of these discs has at least one side that is worth the three minutes or so of the attention it demands.
Little Jimmy Thomas Official – 104 (1964) A Deck the Halls (Fa La La La La) B Jimmy’s Christmas
Little Jimmy Thomas is better known to record collectors as Jimmy James Thomas, the Cincinnati-area musician who, sounding like the bastard child of Roy Head and Joe Tex, recorded the blue-eyed soul-funk monster “I Can’t Dance” on the Cinn-Sound label in 1967. Back in the early 60s, though, he was performing as Little Jimmy Thomas and the Flashers. Although it was a Christmas record, this RCA Custom release—probably pressed at RCA’s Indianapolis plant—was no novelty disc. A reworking of the holiday classic, with its solid beat and prominent organ it simply screams midwestern go-go club. This record should have been a seasonal, regional hit, and it’s really a shame that It’s not better known.
Brendan Hanlon and the Bat Men Bat Records – B-1005 (1964) A Christmas Party B Christmas Alphabet
I wonder if a young John Waters was ever aware of this local 45. If so, I could easily see it having been a contender for the soundtrack of the Christmas scenes in his 1974 film Female Trouble. The grungy guitar, dirty sax, and slightly slack-jawed vocals on Baltimore artist Brendan Hanlon’s “Christmas Party” come off like something from the Holiday Favorites box in Lux and Ivy’s record collection, or perhaps a track from a never realized Special Yuletide Edition of the Desperate Rock and Roll series of compilations. If Hanlon is remembered at all these days it’s not as a greasy rocker, but as an oily crooner. His fifteen minutes of fame came in 1968, shortly after he recorded a short string of singles for Columbia. He was hired that summer to appear on Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca’s touring stage revue. This led to a number of national television appearances along with Caesar and Coca, including one on The Merv Griffin Show. This was as high as his star was destined to rise, however. By the end of the year Columbia was finished with him. Once the touring show closed he milked his relative name recognition for another year or so, still making the occasional television appearance. He was last heard from in Miami in 1975, performing at a show club that promised audiences “a never-ending party.”
Saturday’s Children Dunwich – DN-144 (1966) A Deck Five B Christmas Sounds
Often touted as a Chicago band, Saturday’s Children actually hailed from three widely dispersed parts of the Chicagoland area, with two members even living in Indiana. In fact, in those days before cheap long distance calls their wide geographical distribution could sometimes cause communication problems. An early newspaper account of the band quoted lead guitarist Dave Carter as saying, “It runs us about $15 to settle something by phone.” The group got its start at The Cellar, a popular teen spot in suburban Arlington Heights. The club was managed by Paul Sampson, who also actively groomed artists for wider success via his Chicago-based Windy City Management agency. Under Sampson’s guidance the band released three 45s on Bill Traut’s legendary Dunwich imprint. Their first single for the label seemed to channel both ‘65/Revolver-era Beatles and the Zombies, with a healthy dollop of bent midwestern psychedelia added to the mix. Their second release took the Zombies-flavored jazz sensibilities one step further. For me it is one of the more remarkable discs to come out of the mid-1960s Illiana scene, not to mention one of the more interesting Christmas records of the era. “Deck Five” takes Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” as its basis, then adds lyrics from the carol “Deck the Halls.” A Hammond organ bridge briefly transforms the track into “We Three Kings,” before breaking down into tasteful jazz improv. The pleasant flip side could almost be a holiday offering from The Cyrkle. Overall “Deck Five” shows that Saturday’s Children were not just Beatles copycats, but had serious chops, both technically and creatively.
Chipper Malaco – 2002 (1967) A Groovy Christmas B Toy Soldier
It’s not clear why Malaco Records decided to release this disc under the pseudonym Chipper, while still providing the band’s real name on the label. The Tropics started out as a Tampa-based show band, complete with horn section, but soon switched to a British Invasion sound once it became clear that they could earn much more money that way. “Groovy Christmas,” the A-side of their sole recording as Chipper, is a good example of why male rock vocalists should really think twice before deciding to sing in falsetto. But the flip, “Toy Soldier,” is a dark, little organ-driven psychedelic pop tune. The song possesses enough subtlety and mystery to make it well worth the price of admission. A fun fact for record geeks: two members of The Tropics later went on to form the band White Witch, the “white magic” alternative to “black magic” bands like Coven and Black Sabbath.
The Buck Rogers Movement 21st Century Records – 602 (1967) A Do Christmas Trees Really Grow B Music to Watch Christmas Trees Grow
On the night of February 23, 1970, The Buck Rogers Movement were driving down I-85 into Atlanta to perform their next gig. Earlier in the evening they had stopped for gas in the town of Commerce. Here they attracted the attention of a couple of locals, who began heckling them about their long hair and beards. As the band left the station the rednecks followed them, before aggressively speeding around them and vanishing into the darkness ahead. A bit further on, the vehicle was again spotted on the roadside with the occupants standing beside its open trunk. Then, on the outskirts of Atlanta, the car suddenly pulled up alongside the band. A shot was fired from within, hitting lead guitarist Harlan Cornelius in the head. He survived, but lost his left eye. Even though police later identified the assailants, contemporary reports stated that it was unlikely that the pair would ever stand trial as no one in the group could agree on the exact details of the description of the car the shot was fired from. The Buck Rogers Movement emerged from the late-1960s New England scene, releasing three discs on their own 21st Century label. Listening to these records today, it’s obvious that the group was trying for major market success. This was no scruffy garage band, but the sort of act that could easily have appeared on The Kraft Music Hall or The Joey Bishop Show. While the over-arranged show band sound might be a bit bland elsewhere, the minor key arrangement combined with just a hint of private press imperfection makes “Do Christmas Trees Really Grow” an effectively dark little seasonal offering.
In 2009, the news network Al Jazeera posted a video to its YouTube channel called Finland Forest Folk. The five-and-a-half-minute documentary showed Finnish musicians Lau Nau (Laura Naukkarinen) and Kuupuu (Jonna Karanka) composing and recording their fragile electronica in the middle of the boreal forest. Both artists at the time were associated with the Tampere-based Fonal label, and were key members of a group of musical explorers labeled the New Weird Finland or “forest folk” by music journalists. Naukkarinen has stated elsewhere that she began her career heavily influenced by such freak folk luminaries as Linda Perhacs and Vashti Bunyan. She has also worked extensively with jouhikko revivalist Pekko Käppi. Despite this, watching the video at the time I heard very little of what I would call folk music in the electronic bleeps, bells, and haunting elfin vocals Naukkarinen and Karanka created. It was neither traditional nor “of the people.” That is not to say I dismissed the idea that the music might possibly be some sort of modern folk form, but that it just didn’t jibe with my pre-existing definition of the term. All these years later I’m still wrestling with this idea of how we define “folk” in an age of instant communication and software-driven everything. But I was very taken with the image of a deep sense of the land as muse for experimental music. This little video suggested that there existed a thriving, deeply rural avant-garde somewhere in the world, an idea that resonated very strongly with me.
A couple of years ago, Stefan Keydel was vacationing with his family in Finland. They had rented a cabin near Sulkava, an idyllic rural retreat with the requisite sauna down by the lakeside. Anyone who has ever spent the day driving across a landscape consisting of miles of unbroken forest, whether in West Virginia or Scandinavia, will know that at times it feels like traversing a dark green expanse of water. Hills become ocean swells, and the whole thing threatens to pull you under. The forest seemed to have this effect upon Stefan, and while at the cabin he dreamed that he was drowning on dry land. Freud associated dreams of water with birth, but popular psychology these days usually interprets dreams of drowning as arising from a fear of loss of control. And there are few places were the city-bred are less in control than the deep woods. This truth was already very old when the Brothers Grimm began gathering stories about children vanishing into the forest, as lost and irretrievable as if they were thrown into the sea.
One night during his stay, Stefan walked down to the lakeside where he saw a huge red moon hovering just above the tree line: a total lunar eclipse, a blood moon. He was familiar with the symbolism of a blood red moon from Revelation 6:12, “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.” Stefan tells me that this image, coupled with the earlier dream, felt apocalyptic. I assume he means this in the way the word is commonly used, to refer to a catastrophic end to things, one perhaps foretold in prophecy. But we should remember that this usage is something of a catachresis. “Apocalypse” in its original Greek means “revelation.” These twin revelatory events—the dream followed by the vision (however real the moon was, it still carried visionary meaning for him)—were the inspiration for the latest single by Keydel’s alter-ego, Dreihasenbild, on his own Wet Barbed Wire label.
The title track, “Verikuu sulkavan yli” [“Blood Moon Over Sulkava”], begins with what sounds like a music box playing a crisp, looping melody. Keydel’s violin soon enters the mix, adding a smoky, wooden warmth to the fragile, icy metal edge of the intro. A lone voice then emerges, stark and haunted. It is joined by others, broken angels, singing of drowning on dry land. Their chorus falls from the skies into the conifers below, somewhere between lament and mournful celebration. The track transcends the usual labels given to popular music and veers towards a certain modern classicism, but at heart it is pure Romanticism.
Basically a dramatic ambient piece, the opening notes of “After the Madness” sound at first almost like the string section of an orchestra tuning up, before settling into the electronic drift we expect from such a composition. Buried just below the surface, though, is a field recording. Impossible to identify, the sounds are both organic and mechanical, creating an unnerving subtext. A thoughtfully chosen B-side should serve as support act to the main event. It should complement and anchor the A-side without overshadowing it, and this track does that well.
Stefan photographed the blood moon as it rose over Sulkava, and that image appears on the single’s picture sleeve, designed by Will Branch. Keydel trained as a folklorist and is an accomplished violinist, but has also spent much of his life listening to and working with electronic sounds. He refers to his current work as hauntronica, which simultaneously evokes the ghosts of classic electronica and hauntology-as-genre. But if the output of the New Weird Finland artists can be called “forest folk,” then it’s also an appropriate enough label for this recording. I might also go so far as to add the label “visionary,” if not “apocalyptic.” So much music that is presented as “apocalyptic” these days is harsh, ragged, even brutal. The beauty of this disc proves that it need not be so. This is easy listening for those who actually listen.
A curious ad appeared in the August 1955 issue of Ray Palmer’s MysticMagazine. It announced the release of an LP that would allow readers the opportunity to hear the voice of someone called Yada Di Shi’ite. It went on to say that the record contained “a true aural picture of a typical lecture given by the teachers of the Inner Circle through Mark Probert.” As puzzling as this may sound to us today, regular readers of Mystic would have been very familiar with both Yada and Probert. What is not obvious from the information given, is that this might well be the earliest example of a commercially released vinyl record related to the UFO phenomenon. Unfortunately, no copies of the record are known to exist, and to my knowledge very few collectors are even aware of it. But how this record came to be created and its relationship to early UFO culture is something of a tale.
On October 14, 1946, The Los Angeles Daily News reported that a number of people in San Diego believed that “a space ship from another planet” had attempted to make contact with Earth during the previous week’s meteor shower, an event caused by the passing of the Giacobini-Zinner comet. Although local authorities received no reports of anything out of the ordinary, at least a dozen people told the paper that on October 9 they had witnessed a “large and weird object” in the sky over the city. One witness was quoted as saying, “It was shaped like a bullet and left this vapor trail behind it.” Another observed that it had “something that looked like wings.” The article curiously went on to say that local occult publisher Meade Layne was “putting a medium to work on the supposed sighting.” That medium was Mark Probert.
According to the brief autobiography published in the 1963 edition of his book The Magic Bag, Mark Probert was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1907. As a teenager he joined the Merchant Marine. But after only two years at sea, he disembarked at San Diego and decided to stay. There he worked briefly as a jockey and a bellhop, before moving into vaudeville as a “song and dance man.” By the 1930s vaudeville was dying, so in 1939, he took a job as a graphic artist with the Visual Education Department of the San Diego public school system. It was there he met his wife Irene.
Not long after they were married, Irene made a casual remark that would change the course of their lives. She told Mark that he often talked in his sleep. The odd thing was that when this happened, it sounded as if he were speaking a foreign language. Soon the couple met Meade Layne, a former university professor who had left academia to devote his life to the study of psychic phenomena. As Probert put it, “he had considerable interest and knowledge in the fields of metaphysical and occult laws.” It was Layne who convinced Probert that his nocturnal mumblings could be evidence that he was in fact a trance medium.
The idea that Probert was perhaps channeling entities from beyond was put to the test during an experimental séance. Recounting his experience years later, Probert recalled that after being instructed to relax, he soon found himself in a state of euphoria so intense that he lost all awareness of the world around him. When he regained consciousness, he was told that he had been in a trance for some 45 minutes and had spoken in a voice not his own. The voice introduced itself as Martin Latamore Lingford, a New York showman who had lived earlier in the century. Lingford explained that he and a group of other entities from the “inner planes” had spent years preparing Probert for his role as channel. Soon, the voice promised, these other “controls” would also come forward and make themselves known.
During a number of séances over the next three years, the other controls—collectively known as the Inner Circle—did indeed appear, and began to reveal their plan for Probert’s life. They explained that it was they who had chosen Irene to be not only his wife, but also “their personal guide and assistant in the work.” They emphasized that this work was to be “almost entirely of an educational nature” and not to “expect much in the way of personal matters.” On the surface this may seem a minor point. But this statement could be read as a conscious attempt by Probert to separate his work from earlier trance mediums of the spiritualist movement, who would often help the bereaved by contacting their “dear departed loved ones.” It seems that something more important was happening here.
In early 1945, Meade Layne began publishing a newsletter called The Round Robin. The first issue was sent out, somewhat experimentally, to some 15 to 20 people. Over time it grew, and after a name change to The Journal of Borderland Research, it endured into the current century. In the October 1946 issue, Layne explained that the mysterious object reported by the newspapers that month first came to his attention when he received a telephone call from Mark Probert. He told Layne that he had been watching the meteor shower from the top floor of a building when he sighted it. He described it as a luminous craft, “about the size of an extremely large plane,” with two reddish lights, moving very fast. He then added a surprising detail: “the flapping of its wings was plainly visible.”
The next day Layne received a number of calls from other witnesses who agreed on some points of Probert’s description and disagreed on others. Why these witnesses would call Layne, and not the authorities, to report their sightings is not explained. In a footnote he adds that, “The record of such strange craft, objects, appearances in the sky has greatly increased since Charles Fort began his astonishing memo, and still grows.” This is an interesting comment given that it suggests that the era of the UFO dates to Charles Fort’s early work, the first volume of his “astonishing memo” being his Book of the Damned, published in 1919. What is more remarkable is that this statement was made a full eight months before public knowledge of UFOs was widespread, at least as any sort of organized concept. But early readers of Charles Fort were always a bit ahead of the curve in this respect.
Mark Probert soon went into a trance so that his controls could be asked about the object, something he now seemed to be able to do at will. From them he learned that it was called “the Kareeta.” (Elsewhere its name is given as “Careeta” and even “Corrida.”) In somewhat poetic language, the controls chimed in with their opinions about the craft. One said it came from a planet “many thousands” of miles away and that it was made of “balsam wood [sic] coated with a thin layer of alloy.” Another claimed that it came from “west of the moon” and that its pilots “want you to get a group of scientists who will meet them at some isolated spot.” At this point there is no indication that what was being described was anything other than a concrete object being piloted by physical beings.
In late May 1949, responding to Walter Winchell’s claim that UFOs were actually “experimental guided missiles from Russia,” Layne told a newspaper reporter that the saucers in fact originated from a place called Etheria. This was not a place that was part of our own physical reality, but a “material world, with objects and people and a great civilization, and it lies all about us, though invisible and untouchable.” Based on what he learned from Probert’s controls, Layne had been developing this idea throughout 1947, in the pages of The Round Robin.This is a very early version of the Interdimensional Hypothesis, an idea that would become well known in UFO circles some two decades later. According to the hypothesis conceived by Layne, the saucers did not come from outer space as we know it. Neither did they come from “the astral plane,” but from what was effectively a parallel universe. He was to formalize this idea in 1950, with the publication of a mimeographed booklet called The Ether Ship Mystery and Its Solution.
In late 1953, Ray Palmer, already well known for his success with Amazing Stories and Fate, launched a new magazine called Mystic. In his chatty editorials Palmer expressed a vision for the new publication that sounded almost as if he were attempting to create a new genre of literature, one that was somehow simultaneously both fact and fiction. This new enterprise served as something of a bridge between the fantastic fiction of Amazing Stories and the fantastic “fact” of Fate. In the third issue in March 1954, Palmer printed Roger Graham’s detailed account of how Probert, through his controls, successfully identified and diagnosed a number of Graham’s medical problems, diagnoses that were later confirmed by medical professionals. This article signaled the beginning of what would become something of a fascination with Probert on Ray Palmer’s part. This may have been partly due to the number of letters the magazine received about Probert’s alleged abilities, both supportive and scoffing. Palmer was never one to let a good controversy go unexploited.
The cover of the August 1954 issue of Mystic featured paintings by Probert of three of his more talkative controls. These were Ramon Natalli, an astronomer who lived at the time of Galileo; Doctor Alfred Luntz, a 19th-century Anglo-German “clergyman for the High Episcopal Church of England”; and Yada Di Shi’ite, a 500,000 year old priest from a lost Himalayan city. Elsewhere Probert wrote that these controls, along with two others, appeared to him in visible form one night in 1947, insisting that he paint their portraits. He did not explain why disembodied entities from the inner planes who had lived in a number of different physical bodies over the millennia would want portraits of themselves, but some of these paintings were later used as illustrations in Probert’s book The Magic Bag.
The feature article in the August issue of Mystic was the transcription of a séance held by Probert, attended by Irene and a man identified only as “RGM.” The pair were to present a set of questions to the controls that had been provided to them by Ray Palmer. The first of the Inner Circle to emerge was Dr. Luntz. The question posed to him concerned the extent of the US government’s knowledge of the true nature of flying saucers. For a Victorian vicar, Luntz seemed to be quite knowledgeable on the subject. His answer was that the government did indeed know more about the phenomenon than was publicly admitted, but that there was no sinister motive behind it. The intent was simply to shield the public from the panic that would surely result from any revelation. He then went on to suggest, somewhat incongruously, that arch-debunker Donald Menzel’s recent book—Flying Saucers, published by Harvard University Press in 1953—was the result of an intentional conspiracy to suppress the reality of the saucers.
Renaissance astronomer Ramon Natalli then made a brief appearance, presenting his theory that all reality is driven by consciousness. With the opening acts out of the way, it was time for Probert’s star turn. Yada Di Shi’ite manifested speaking his own impenetrable ancient language of Yuga. Introducing Yada’s arrival with a barrage of gibberish would soon become something of a set piece for Probert. Undoubtedly this was a device intended to add drama to Yada’s arrival and to increase audience anticipation. Switching to English, Yada provided the basic outline of his autobiography. He said he had lived a half million years ago in the city of Kaoti, in a civilization called Yu. There he was a Ka-Ta, or priest. Once he completed the “33rd degree in the order called Shi’ite,” he was given the title Yada. Since that first life in the Himalayas he had been reincarnated many times, the last being in China 500 years ago. In this description, Yada presented himself as something between a bodhisattva and a Scottish Rite Mason. He said that he had not experienced any “breaks in consciousness” since his original incarnation on Earth, and that anyone could achieve this. He then explained that reality is illusory but that mankind can rise out of this illusion by degrees. He closed with the revelation that no single path leads to enlightenment, but that “all of man’s experiences are to be classified as initiations into higher and to more complete states of awareness.”
Over the next year it was a rare copy of Mystic that did not feature Probert somewhere in its pages. An interesting letter from an anonymous correspondent who claimed to work in the mental health industry appeared in the August 1955 issue. He wrote that after seeing Probert in person he was “very disillusioned.” Among his complaints was that the messages the controls delivered were unoriginal, and seemed to have been gleaned from the library. Also unconvincing, was the fact that the various voices that emerged from Probert—whether early modern Italian, Victorian English, or ancient Himalayan—always spoke in the same accent. “I think these trance states would not have become necessary had he not found himself a teacher with no students, a philosopher with no audience,” he wrote, “consciously or unconsciously I believe that he is using the occult to put his own ideas across.”
Also in the August 1955 issue, was an advertisement for a long playing album, announcing that the public could now hear the voice of Yada Di Shi’ite at home. The ad copy was written in a tone that assumed the reader knew full well who both Probert and Yada were. It explained that the record had been made from an unedited, hour-long tape of a séance held before a live audience. Yada would begin the session by speaking in his ancient native tongue, before switching to English. The Himalayan priest would then give his opinions on such topics as reincarnation and the purpose of life, before taking questions from the audience. All this could be in the reader’s mailbox by sending only $4.98 to Inner Circle Records in Ojai, California.
To my knowledge, no copy of this record has ever turned up. Why? The first and most likely answer is that it was only ever pressed in an extremely limited quantity, never sold well, and any remaining stock was eventually disposed of. This has been the unfortunate fate of so many ephemeral recordings over the years. Another possibility is that it never existed. If that is the case, then the ad for the record was likely an attempt to secure orders before actually pressing and shipping the disc. This model was definitely in use at the time for self-published saucer and occult books, although in those cases buyers were usually clearly told that they were placing an advance order.
The offices of Mystic were in Evanston, Illinois, and Mark Probert was based in San Diego. Why then is the address given in the ad in Ojai, California, a tiny town more than 200 miles away from Probert’s home? The obvious answer is that the company producing the record was located there. It does not appear that Inner Circle Records actually existed except for the purposes of this release. In all likelihood, it is simply the label name Probert chose to use when arranging its manufacture with a custom pressing outfit. And in a town as small as Ojai, it would seem that the company should be fairly easy to identify.
At first sight, a tantalizing possibility is that the record may be a very early release by the legendary Two: Dot Records. This label was run by husband-and-wife team Dean and JoAnne Thompson from their home on the outskirts of town. They began doing run-of-the-mill custom work in the 1950s, before tapping into the regional rock scene in the late 1960s. Examples of the label’s 1970s output by bands like Hendrickson Road House or The Mystic Zephyrs 4 sometimes sell for as high as four figures.
However, there was also another label operating out of Ojai in the 1950s. Educo Records was founded in 1953, to release classical recordings to be used for music appreciation classes in schools and colleges. The company operated out of Ojai during its first few years of existence, and later relocated to nearby Ventura. Given that the PO Box address in the Mystic ad was that used by Educo while in Ojai, it is reasonable to conclude that this was the company contracted by Probert to manufacture the LP. So far, no other custom releases by Educo have been identified. But like other small labels of the era, it is likely that Educo accepted custom contracts to increase revenue, the finished product bearing no evidence of the manufacturer so as not to confuse private releases with the company’s main brand in the minds of consumers.
It is not known whether Probert’s LP contained any references to the flying saucer phenomenon. By 1956, however, Yada was giving audiences his opinion on the reality and nature of UFOs, still promoting the idea that they were not from other planets but from another dimension. In early 1957, Probert was a guest on Long John Nebel’s radio show in New York, a regular stop for saucer celebrities. In 1960, he appeared at the Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention—the most famous and one of the largest of the early UFO conventions—where he channeled Yada for an audience, with Irene acting as master of ceremonies. Here, as usual, Yada first emerged speaking Yuga before switching to English.
A cynical observer might point out that Probert by his own admission was an ex-vaudevillian, and that this standard performance—repeated ad infinitum—was beginning to have something of the feel of a tired old vaudeville turn. The couple continued touring the country performing séances throughout the 1960s, and after Irene’s death in 1966, Probert continued his work alone.
Probert’s last known major public appearance was at the Northern California Space Convention in October 1968. At this point he was telling audiences that he was not a medium, but a “telegnostic.” This term not only served to further distance him from the stereotype of the medium left over from the days of spiritualism, but implied something deeper. The term suggested that he was not just contacting spirits, but was somehow transmitting gnosis from some distant location. It also served to position him not simply as a fortune teller or mentalist, but as something much more serious: a gnostic. Mark Probert died a few months later, in early 1969.
It is easy in our rationalist era to cast Mark Probert as one in a long line of spiritualists who were either delusional or blatantly fraudulent. But this point of view ignores the content of his message. What is remarkable about the séance published in the August 1954 issue of Mystic, is that in a single, short session Probert—or, if you prefer, his controls—was able to seamlessly guide the conversation from possible conspiracies around the existence of UFOs, to ideas about reality being a by-product of consciousness, ending with hints of a grand Buddho-Masonic theory of release from the cycle of reincarnation, resulting in something resembling Buddhahood. In doing so, he provided a tantalizing suggestion that these things might somehow all be related. It is also striking that the questions raised by Natalli and Yada during the séance are still those that concern serious modern students of anomalous phenomena, mysticism, and even physics. In effect, Probert seemed to be telling audiences to move away from the obvious conclusions they were making not only about saucers, but about existence itself.
As far back as 1947, when most people were just hearing the term “flying saucers” for the first time, Mark Probert had already rejected myopic materialism, and was telling the world that perhaps the very fabric of reality was quite different than our model of it. And though wrapped in a presentation that borrowed heavily from theosophy, spiritualism, and the vaudeville stage, Probert’s ideas foreshadowed an important direction that one school of thought was to take in the future. This move away from the idea of UFOs as a nuts and bolts phenomenon, and towards a more blended view involving theories of consciousness, human cognition, and quantum theories of time and space is one that is fast gaining momentum today.
Many myths and legends center around something lost, an object or a bit of knowledge; its very absence imbues the missing thing with meaning, even importance. It is likely, however, that the idea of a lost recording of the voice of Yada Di Shi’ite is much more interesting than the actual reality, were a copy ever to surface. But puzzles like the one surrounding this album are what keep researchers moving forward, and in the process uncovering the next riddle to be solved. The UFO phenomenon itself is more koan than puzzle. It is also both an ontological and an epistemological mystery, so it should come as no surprise that a study of recordings related to it would begin with its own discographical mystery.
For a while now I’ve been considering what discography might look like as a practice that is simultaneously creative and empirical. Recently, I came across a 45 by an obscure Lebanese pop artist that immediately struck me as the perfect starting point to work out some of my ideas on the subject. These ideas are loosely informed and inspired by the current practice of research-creation that attempts to express “hard” research using creative modes, Siegfried Zielinski’s concept of the anarchive, Walter Benjamin’s “magic encyclopedia,” and Erdmut Wizisla’s idea that objects in a collection can have a “sibling relationship” and be “conversant” with one another. What I offer here is a short discography that has emerged from the single itself. It is both a light “reading” of the object as a text, and a reconstruction of a collection of records that is portrayed on its picture sleeve. For this exercise, I started with no plan, no grand theory, no research question. I simply allowed the record to dream up its own discography.
Brotherphone BP 145/146 (Lebanon, 1963)
A Ya Ya Ya
The picture sleeve shows a young woman wearing a peignoir, sprawled across her bed amid stacks of 45s. She is examining the label of one of the records, while another spins on a portable turntable. Nearby is a stack of about a dozen more, resting atop what appears to be an LP. With so much information present on the sleeve, the immediate effect is to draw the eye towards the collection of objects on the bed in an attempt to make sense of them.
Mayada was something of a spinoff act. She was the younger sister of the much more famous Taroub. Most of what we know about Mayada’s background can only be surmised from her sister’s better documented biography.
Taroub was born in Damascus, but grew up in Amman, Jordan. In the late 1950s, she moved to Beirut, where she married Palestinian singer and composer Muhammad Jamal. The couple became quite famous, performing both individually and as a duo. By the mid-1960s Taroub began appearing in Lebanese and Turkish films. She was also a songwriter. Even though her performances seem very tame by today’s standards, they were often seen at the time as pushing the boundaries of propriety. With very few sources to go on, it is likely that Mayada also spent her early years in Jordan and followed her sister to Beirut at some point.
In the 1960s, Lebanon’s economy was booming. The language in the street was Arabic, but French was the language of business, education, and the elite. Although Arabicized for the local market, Mayada’s style and sound were decidedly European. This was her second disc for the Brotherphone label. Its A-side, “Ya Ya Ya,” is a nod to the emerging French subgenre known as yé-yé, which at the time was enjoying its initial blast of popularity in France via the radio program Salut les Copains and the magazine of the same name. The record player Mayada is using in the sleeve photo appears to be a Philips AG4000, a Dutch model manufactured between 1962 and 1964 (which also helps us date the record). Except for a copy of her own first single (see below), the other 45s scattered around her are from Germany and the Netherlands. The sleeve unambiguously portrays Mayada as an artist who takes her cultural cues from the West. While the photograph only supplies a limited amount of information, there is enough there to begin to reconstruct the collection of 45s it shows.
CBS CA 281.199 (Netherlands, 17 Jun 1963)
A Wini Wini (Tamouré)
B Losing You
The tamouré was a Tahitian dance rhythm first popularized by a French colonial soldier from Tahiti named Louis Martin, who wrote a song with this “nonsense” word as its chorus. (It was nonsense to Tahitian speakers, at any rate. Apparently, tamouré is the name of a fish from the Tuamotu Islands. Whether Martin was familiar with the Tuamotu word or whether this is pure coincidence is not known.) In 1963, an all-female studio group called Die Tahiti-Tamourés had a hit in West Germany with a tune called “Wini Wini” that used this rhythm, composed by the schlager team of Monique Falk (writing under her pseudonym, Heinz Hellmer) and Wolf Petersen.
Don Costa is probably best remembered as Frank Sinatra’s longtime conductor and arranger. Costa’s take on “Wini Wini” is just one of many cover versions released at the time in Germany and the Netherlands to capitalize on the tune’s success. Columbia also released Costa’s recording in America—a last gasp attempt to milk the already waning exotica craze—where it had zero impact. The presence of this 45 on the sleeve of Mayada’s own record points to the fact that it informs the B-side of her disc.
Columbia C 22 394 (Germany, 1963)
A Summer Holiday
B Dancing Shoes
Cliff Richard was the most successful of the several attempts by the British recording industry to find a home-grown replacement for Elvis Presley. Like Elvis, however, by 1963 Richard had already made the transition from rock star to milquetoast crooner, as the dominant model of rock stardom was fast shifting to the Beat combo. The A-side of this record, “Summer Holiday,” was the theme tune to the film of the same name—in which Richard also starred—and was a number one hit in Britain that summer.
Columbia C 22 072 (Germany, 1962)
A The Young Ones
B We Say Yeah
In the early 1960s, Columbia Records’ German division issued a generic die-cut sleeve for Cliff Richard’s singles. It bore a large photo of Richard on its left side, a reverse image of the one found on his 1961 LP, Listen to Cliff! In its upper right corner were small images of the German versions of two of Richard’s other albums for the label, Cliff’s 21stBirthday (1961) and Cliff Sings for the Young Ones (1962). The edge of this sleeve can just be made out, resting beneath the “Summer Holiday” single. It is likely that Columbia used it for other releases as well, but I have only ever seen the sleeve housing the theme song to Richard’s film The Young Ones, so identifying this as the disc on the cover of Mayada’s record is admittedly a guess. The fact that this and the Cliff Richard 45 mentioned above are both from film soundtracks is probably no accident. In the 1960s, Beirut was cinema mad and films from Egypt, Hollywood, and Europe were regularly shown.
Brotherphone BP 135/136 (Lebanon, 1963)
A Hully Gully
Mayada’s first 45 on the Brotherphone label is clearly pictured on the sleeve of her second release. This also appears to be the disc that is spinning on the turntable in the photograph. “Hully Gully” is a paean to the dance craze that was then sweeping the West, while “Surf” is a Franco-Arabic take on “If I Had a Hammer.” Her version was not based on Peter, Paul, & Mary’s hit single so familiar to most Americans, but on Trini Lopez’s uptempo cover of the tune that was a huge hit in France earlier that year, released there on the Reprise label.
By stepping outside the traditional organizational strategies of discography—the more common practice of arranging recordings by genre, artist, or country of origin—previously hidden connections are often revealed. These connections point to new information that itself can lead to new questions, new lines of inquiry. In this exercise, it quickly becomes apparent that European media was hugely influential in Lebanon in the early 1960s. Because all the records spread out on Mayada’s bed, except for her own first single, are CBS/Columbia releases from Germany and the Netherlands, it’s tempting to speculate that Brotherphone acted as a local distributor for the company. This adds an extra dimension to the question of why these particular discs appear on the sleeve. A traditionally organized discography of Lebanese 45s from the period would only show releases from homegrown labels like Brotherphone, Voice of Lebanon, or Baidaphone. While this approach would definitely be useful, it would not be a realistic portrayal of the discs that a typical popular music fan at the time might be listening to. There is even a danger that such a discography without sufficient introductory background material might unintentionally cause a false perception about the media landscape in the country during that decade.
As noted above, this is just a first step in thinking out the idea of how the art of discography could be practiced as a creative act while still retaining its relevance and usefulness, and as such it has barely scratched the surface of its ultimate potential. Traditional discographies with chatty annotations do already exist, and can certainly be seen as works that are simultaneously empirical and creative. What I am proposing, however, goes beyond simply incorporating creative writing into the practice. To be creative in a fundamental way a discographer must dispense with the boundaries of traditional organizational strategies, and even with the research question itself. By finding a simple starting point and letting the research lead where it may, the data will often begin to tell its own story, right before your eyes.
Like most of us, I’ve been thinking about little else besides the COVID-19 outbreak lately. Since during “normal” periods I’m usually considering the way that human culture is expressed through recorded media, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to combine the two things. So I decided to do a brief survey of records from the period I know best, roughly the 1960s and 1970s, that touch on the idea of contagion and the spread of disease. Often during this era, the idea of communicable illness was used as a metaphor for attraction and lust, such as in The Trammps’ 1973 hit, “Love Epidemic.” The examples here, however, all deal with literal epidemics. Interestingly, I can find no examples of the word “pandemic” being associated with any recording until the 1980s.
This selected discography was created as an exploration into the archive, as an exercise in discovery. The selections here are my own and as such are completely subjective. Exercises such as this one, however, often bring interesting questions to light. This makes them good potential starting points for deeper study.
Kimbo Records – KI 00131 (US, 7”, 1956)
A I Got the Asian Flu for Christmas
B Mother Goose Parade
American jazz and cabaret singer Marlene VerPlanck moonlights as a children’s entertainer on this exercise in bad taste. The Asian flu pandemic of 1956 to 1958 eventually resulted in the deaths of approximately two million people, nearly 70,000 in the US alone.
Basil Rathbone Basil Rathbone Reads Edgar Allan Poe Caedmon Records – TC 1028 (US, LP, 1958)
Before audiobooks there were spoken word records, and Caedmon was a pioneer in the field of recorded literature. For this outing the label hired Basil Rathbone, a legendary Shakespearean actor who was just beginning a professional freefall that would eventually result in his acceptance of roles in such films as The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967). Reading Poe was still within the respectable remit of the trained Shakespearean actor, however, so this disc was one of the high points of his later career. After reciting a number of Poe’s poems, Rathbone closes side one with “The Masque of the Red Death,” the author’s pessimistic tale of a medieval town in the midst of a plague that causes its victims to bleed from the pores. The moral? Death is coming for you. None of you can escape it. None of you.
Philips – BF 1628 (UK, 7”, 1967)
B The Plague
A non-LP B-side lurking on the reverse of Scott Walker’s bent cabaret version of Jacques Brel’s “Jackie,” “The Plague” was only slightly less in your face, but equally odd. The production here is enormous. Walker comes off as an avant-garde Tom Jones performing in an aircraft hangar accompanied by an orchestra and a group of backup singers direct from a surrealist episode of Soul Train. The lyrics are perfectly opaque, so it’s unclear whether the plague is meant as metaphor or literal disease. As Scott himself tells us in the song, though: “But it’s all so vague / When you meet the Plague.”
Eric Burdon & The Animals Winds of Change
MGM Records – SE 4484 (US, LP, 1967)
I’ve always been rather lukewarm about The Animals’ hit singles, but exploring Burdon & Company’s deeper catalog often leads to some interesting surprises. On “The Black Plague” from the 1967 LP Winds of Change, Burdon recites a creepy original poem that paints a post-apocalyptic portrait of life during the medieval plague years. The explicit details (“his hands were blistered”) and Burdon’s slight Geordie brogue give the piece a certain warm immediacy that works well. Haunting organ and background chants of “Bring out your dead” and “Unclean” only add to the atmosphere.
The Ethiopians JJ Records – DB 1185 (UK, 7”, 1969)
A Hong Kong Flu
B Clap Your Hands
Like much of the rest of the world, Jamaica was in the midst of the Hong Kong flu pandemic in 1969. By 1972 there would be a million dead worldwide from the disease. But music is the fuel that powers Jamaica’s culture, and events both good and bad are often celebrated in song. So it should come as no surprise that as the disease was ripping through the island, a band would record a hit single about the event. Despite its upbeat tempo—made for dancing, and people reportedly did dance to it—the song’s lyrics were quite serious: “Some say it’s dengue fever / I know it’s Hong Kong flu…It’s terrible and dreadful, man.” Many who lived through the period still remember the song today, perhaps even better than the pandemic itself.
Gil Mellé The Andromeda Strain Kapp Records – KRS 5513 (US, LP, 1971)
If you wanted to cozy up with an album that perfectly reflects all the tension, fear, and unease caused by COVID-19, Gil Mellé’s jarringly electronic soundtrack to the 1971 film The Andromeda Strain would be the perfect choice. The film deals with a group of scientists rushing to prevent a pandemic by an alien virus brought to earth by a crashed satellite. Mellé was a jazz musician who eventually turned to electronic music. He is probably best remembered as the composer of the theme to the early 1970s television series Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. His Andromeda soundtrack is edgy, jagged, noisy, and undoubtedly one of the strangest things to have been released by a major label up to that point.
OHO was a Baltimore band that appears to have performed with tongue firmly in cheek. Their version of private press prog ranged from near-cartoon goofiness to faux-epic posing. “The Plague,” from their debut LP, is based on Albert Camus’ 1947 novel La Peste, but the lyrics are impressionistic, not obviously narrative. It’s only through close listening for lines like “the dead pass by in carts” that we begin to suspect that the tune might be a portrayal of a city wracked by plague, not an attempt at demonstrating the lead vocalist’s truly sensitive nature.
Ian Richardson The Diary of Samuel Pepys
Caedmon Records – TC 1462 (US, LP, 1976)
Two years after his recording of a spoken word version of the 15th-century treatise on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, Caedmon again turned to actor Ian Richardson to provide the same treatment for excerpts from Samuel Pepys’ diaries. Side one closes with the great diarist’s tales of life during 1665, the plague year. As the disease threatened London, Pepys wrote that there were “[g]reat fears of the sickenesse here in the City.” Once it arrived, the law stated that any house touched by the plague be shut up for 40 days with the residents inside, marked with a cross, and guarded by watchmen. “I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there—which was a sad sight to me,” he wrote. Despite the fact that his diary shows that he was clearly worried during this period, he continued to go about business as usual, but somehow avoided infection. His final diary entry for that year is almost celebratory, “I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time.”
Tony Hymas Wessex Tales and Elements
KPM Music – KPM 1216 (UK, LP, 1978)
At the time this LP appeared on the legendary library music label KPM, keyboardist Tony Hymas was a member of ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce’s band. Hymas was not just a session musician, however, but was also a composer, and would go on to release a number of albums on KPM. Wessex Tales and Elements consists of 13 tracks composed for an orchestra made up entirely of strings. As with many library LPs, each song on the tracklist is accompanied by a description of its mood, in order to assist radio and television programmers for whom the discs were intended. The descriptions on side one are bucolic: “Gradual awakening,” “Bright village activity,” and “Light rural pasttimes.” Things get decidedly darker on side two, which opens with a “Slowly building ominous progression.” The final track, “Pestilence,” is described as having a “Menacing build to climax.” The throaty growl of bowed contrabasses create enough texture and doom-filled drama to make up for the lack of percussion or other instruments. As the final note fades, one is left to assume that after pestilence the rest is silence.
During the summer of 1980, I was an exchange student in a small town in Germany. Its medieval walls and picturesque town gate gave the place a humble charm that belied its location in the midst of the lignite coal fields, the huge expanse of open pit mines that fill large chunks of the landscape between Cologne and the Dutch border. The town’s only skyline was the silhouette of the cooling towers of the nearby Niederaußem Power Station, a plant that still spews more mercury than most any other in Europe. I was already music-obsessed in those days. The summer’s soundtrack was determined by what was available to me: weekly episodes of John Peel’s show via the British Forces Broadcasting Service, and vinyl copies of the The Nina Hagen Band’s debut, Devo’s first album, and Kraftwerk’s Die Mensch-Maschine.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but two of these albums had been recorded within an hour’s journey from where I sat listening to them: Kraftwerk at their own Klingklang Studio in Düsseldorf, and Devo at Conny Plank’s studio in Wolperath, east of Cologne. My attention at the time was attuned to what was going on in the UK scene, so I had not yet learned of Germany’s huge role in the creation of the music I loved. The radio waves in that part of Europe at the time were actually pretty bleak, filled with Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5” and Udo Lindenberg’s German-language version of “Born to Be Wild.” Using an old 1960s multi-band console radio, however, it was possible to dial up the exotic. I heard broadcasts in Hungarian and Polish, and could easily get the English-language service of Radio Kiev. These were still the days of classic Soviet propaganda; each phrase the announcer spoke in her crisp, precise pronunciation simply oozed ideology. Then one evening while scanning the airwaves, I came across something truly bizarre.
The station I hit upon featured a woman’s voice speaking clusters of numbers in German. I listened for some minutes, expecting the broadcast to move on to something different—a station identification, an announcer—anything that would provide more information as to what I was hearing. But the voice just continued speaking numbers. I couldn’t be sure given its length, but after a while I began to suspect that perhaps the broadcast was on a loop, endlessly repeating itself. Being in the heart of western Europe in the midst of the Cold War, the idea that the station could somehow be linked to espionage did occur to me. Coming across a similar station a week or two later that was broadcasting numbers in Russian only increased this suspicion. Soon these stations became my favorite things to listen to in the evening. There was a hypnotic, soothing quality about them. The emotionless intonation of foreign words spoken in a flat dead studio space created something akin to an experimental ambient soundtrack. At the time, I thought this was my personal revelation, something practically undiscovered by others. Years later, in 1997, I was very surprised to see the release of a 4-CD box set called The Conet Project. Someone had not only collected more examples of these stations than I ever dreamed existed, but had even written a 72-page booklet about them, creating something of a typology in the process.
Stefan Keydel, March 2020. Photo by Lynne Adele.
Austin-based Stefan Keydel, who records under the name Dreihasenbild, also spent a chunk of the early 1980s in Germany. According to his website, he “uses wood (violin) and wire (synths from Moog and Teenage Engineering) to conjure up an otherworldly journey into the realm of hauntronica.” The specters of Düsseldorf and Wolperath decidedly haunt Dreihasenbild’s sound. The result is not simply some retro pastiche, however, but a fully contemporary expression that uses 80s Euro-electronica as foundation and toolkit, while still operating firmly from within this century.
Dreihasenbild is the German word for the “three hares,” a motif showing three rabbits or hares chasing each other in a circle. It is usually found as an architectural element across Eurasia, most commonly in Britain and Germany. Although thought to represent the Trinity when used in churches, like many folkloric motifs its original meaning is lost to time. Keydel put out two digital works under this name in 2018. But this month marks the release of the project’s first physical artifact, a vinyl 45 on his own Wet Barbed Wire label.
The three hares.
“Visitation” opens with a slowed-down sample from “Swedish Rhapsody,” one of the better-known tracks on the Conet Project CD. This sample, used with the permission of Conet compiler Akin Fernandez, was originally recorded from a German-language numbers station used by the Polish intelligence services. As an identifier, it used a music box playing a snippet of Hugo Alfvén’s “Swedish Rhapsody No. 1” as its interval signal. (Although there is some debate among numbers stations supergeeks as to whether the tune is actually one called “Luxembourg Polka.”) The track then moves into a hauntingly beautiful interplay between synthesizer and violin. The music is hugely cinematic in the way it completely transports the listener into its own narrative. Despite its graceful formality, the composition crackles at the edges with reminders that we should perhaps not get too comfortable. Its honey-colored tones are fraught with Eastern bloc paranoia, especially when what sounds like a young girl’s voice begins speaking a series of numbers through a heavy wall of distortion and static. The knowledge that this voice was not that of a young girl at all, but of a machine developed by the East German secret police known as a Sprach-Morse-Generator, only adds to the creep factor. You can almost see the antennae bristling atop the Polish embassy.
Although the disc’s B-side also incorporates a voice from the past seeping into the present, “Return” is a more understated ambient track. As a form, ambient music is generally composed to be unobtrusive and to work as a neutral background. Because of this, even the most effective ambient compositions can sometimes be little more than pleasant aural wallpaper. (Keeping in mind that even the creation of wallpaper can be a high art.) While “Return” could easily work as mood music for a slightly edgy cocktail party, it also possesses a certain arc, a certain drama, that recommends it to the more attentive listener. There’s something of a narrative structure here, an introduction followed by a sense of action rising to a climax, which then tumbles towards a resolution. In the end, we are left with only the voice of a Scottish miner speaking in a metrical sing-song through a rainstorm of static. Originally recorded in 1917, the fact that we can hear this voice at all is a gift to the present made possible by the cutting-edge technology of that era.
Listening to Dreihasenbild’s new release, the idea keeps recurring to me that 1980 is the disc’s default setting. Although I’m fairly certain that neither were direct influences, I hear echoes of Tuxedomoon’s use of “wood and wire” as well as Popul Vuh’s more ambient moments. In his book Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, the late Mark Fisher referred to the electronic sound of the later 1970s and early 1980s as popular modernism. He pointed out that using technology to “allow new forms to emerge” was a “paradigmatically modernist” move, even when a work drew on older sources as its starting point. The danger of working in this mode is that it can lead to charges of rose-colored romanticism, of a desire to return to lost “good old days.” Fisher countered this view, however, by offering Fredric Jameson’s take on nostalgia, in which a longing is not for an historical period, but for a form. For me, the new Dreihasenbild disc is a good example of this Jamesonian nostalgia-that-is-not-nostalgia. Its haunting atmospheres suggest not a desire to return to 1980, but a longing to recapture a specific vision of the future that had developed by that period, one that was never realized. This was a future tinged with paranoia and possessing a cold, technological substrate—computers, synthesizers, and drum machines—that was nevertheless still kind, ethical, hopeful, aesthetic, and heartbreakingly romantic.
The term Afrofuturism was originally coined by critic Mark Dery to refer to “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture.” Understanding that the term’s implications were wider than this definition allowed, Dery added that it could also more generally refer to any “African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” When the term first appeared in print in 1994, it was immediately taken up by scholars and applied beyond the literary, especially to visual media and music. With this move also came a widening of its scope. Soon the idea was being applied to the African diaspora as a whole, which allowed for the inclusion of things like the more space age experiments of Caribbean dub producers such as Lee Perry and Scientist. Some tendrils of thought have even extended the idea to writers and artists on the continent of Africa itself, although this angle is often debated, with detractors drawing the line around the diasporic experience.
Once an idea as powerful as Afrofuturism appears in the intellectual landscape, scholars will naturally begin a sort of cultural archaeology in an attempt to trace its origins. Although earlier works that hint at the idea have been suggested as precursors—such as W. E. B. DuBois’ 1920 short story “The Comet” or Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man—these texts reflect steps towards the development of the theme, rather than being examples in themselves. Most treatments of the subject agree that that first appearance of Afrofuturism “writ large” in wider culture was the work of jazz musician Sun Ra. Although he had been claiming since at least 1952 to have been taken on an astral trip to Saturn, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that he and his band began performing in space age costumes that were equal parts Egyptian Revival and science fiction B-movie. At the same time, he began to publically espouse his esoteric philosophy—a cocktail of mythology, mysticism, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, and black nationalism—while his music began to move away from more standard jazz forms into something decidedly more avant-garde. But several years before Sun Ra ever appeared on stage dressed as a pharaoh from the Pleiades, an African-American holiness preacher showed up at the Pentagon carrying a strange painting.
In 1944, Elder Charles Beck had a dream powerful enough to decide the course of his life for many years to come. In this dream the Russians had invaded the United States and killed off most white people. Some 50,000 African Americans then rose up against the invading army, holding them back long enough for a fleet of flying saucers to arrive and disintegrate the invaders by shooting fire from their portholes. During these events a “large angel” gave Beck a running commentary, telling him “how to go about saving the country and winning better understanding for all Negroes.” When he told people about the experience and that he took it seriously as some sort of prophecy, most of them scoffed. So he stopped discussing it until the late 1940s, when reports of sightings of flying saucers began to regularly appear in newspapers and gave him confidence to take the subject up again. Around this time, he had the dream on two other occasions. By this point he was no longer referring to it as a dream, but as a vision. Beck then commissioned an artist to create a visual representation of his vision. The resulting painting was executed “in good bright colors” and showed not only the saucers, but also Beck himself depicted as a latter-day Jacob “in the act of dreaming.”
Elder Charles Beck and parishioners, 1956
In late summer 1952, Beck experienced the vision for a fourth time. This inspired him to travel to Washington, where he brought the painting to the Pentagon in an effort to convince the Air Force to take his prophecy seriously. He told them that the flying saucers being reported in the media were “advanced [sic] agents being sent to earth by God to break up the Atomic war which is being planned.” He backed up his interpretation by citing both Ezekiel’s vision and a garbled version of an incident in northern New Mexico (later proven to be a hoax) reported by Frank Scully in his 1950 book Behind the Flying Saucers. The Pentagon referred him to “the flying saucer expert” at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, who, according to Beck, “refused to listen to his story.”
If you wanted to find a mystic among fundamentalist Christians, a good place to look would be among the holiness people. There’s something about a theology that emphasizes a literal possession by a metaphysical force as its starting point that tends to both attract and create mystics, albeit usually of a literalist sort. Elder Charles Beck was one such mystic. Probably born in Alabama around the turn of the last century (sources differ), by the mid-1940s he was a prominent holiness minister serving the African-American community in Pittsburgh. He was also a gospel recording artist, having recorded for Okeh Records in 1930 and for Decca in 1937, as well as having a successful local radio program. Most of the research that has been done on Beck focuses on the musical aspect of his career. What is rarely mentioned, however, is that he was very much an early civil rights activist and was also involved in the black nationalist movement. In 1945, he appeared before the newly founded United Nations, urging that the problem of anti-black discrimination around the world be addressed. During this visit he also met with delegates from “half a dozen colored nations.” A year later, he and a group of parishioners picketed the White House, protesting a recent spate of lynchings in Georgia. In early 1947, he toured the east coast with the choir from his radio program to raise money for the Willie Francis Defense Fund. Francis had been the victim of a botched execution attempt in Louisiana. His attorneys were appealing his case to the US Supreme Court, claiming that proceeding with the execution would be a violation of a number of laws. Sadly, Francis would lose the case and be executed later that year.
By the time he visited the Pentagon in 1952, Beck had relocated his ministry to Buffalo, New York, and was now well known across the region for his radio show based there. For Beck, his prophetic vision marked the beginning of something of an obsession with flying saucers and their deeper meaning. In the fall of 1953, he launched a tour of public speaking engagements with an unlikely sidekick. Orfeo Angelucci was a nervous, eccentric Italian American who worked in an aircraft plant in California. Beck seems to have learned of Angelucci when his article “I Traveled in a Flying Saucer” (ghostwritten by Paul M. Vest) appeared in the November issue of Ray Palmer’s Mystic magazine. If this is indeed the case, then Beck acted very quickly in contacting Angelucci, as the issue could not have been on the stands for more than a couple of weeks before the pair appeared together in New York City. Angelucci was one of the more unusual “contactees” of the 1950s, those individuals who claimed to have been in touch with space aliens. The main proof of these claims usually took the form of very clichéd narratives that even by the standards of the day seemed more pulp fiction than reality. Given Beck’s standing as a well-known activist and respected figure in the African-American community, his decision to appear with Angelucci seems bizarre from a modern perspective. But Beck seemed to believe his story, which also served to reinforce Beck’s own prophetic vision.
In the May 1954 issue of his magazine, Ray Palmer referred to Elder Charles Beck as “a staunch reader of Mystic” and “a true mystic.” Mystic could be purchased on newsstands, so it’s no surprise that someone with esoteric interests may have come across it accidentally and been drawn to it. What is more surprising, is that Beck seems to have been actively exploring what was something of an occult underground, and searching out others involved in the study of both UFOs and esotericism. A letter from Beck appeared in the February 15, 1955, issue of Saucer Sentinel, a mimeographed fanzine published by a group of UFO enthusiasts in Michigan. In it he mentioned his radio show on WKBW in Buffalo, and added that he was also about to start broadcasting from the border blaster XEG in Monterrey, Mexico, a monstrously powerful station that would greatly expand his audience. He told the zine that he would be discussing UFOs on these programs. He said that he was a friend of Gray Barker (a well-known publisher of UFO books and playful hoaxster), and occult publisher Meade Layne, and that he was a member of Layne’s Borderland Science Research Association. He also claimed to have recorded interviews on location with witnesses of the Flatwoods Monster in West Virginia and a reputed saucer landing in Sudbury, Ontario. What he did not mention was that his US radio show was syndicated to some 30 stations around the country, with a total audience of around three million, and the terms of his contract with XEG called for him to receive a payment of $150,000. This was big media—and big money.
Beck continued to release a handful of gospel recordings in the 1940s and 1950s, but these days he is probably best remembered from his appearance on a Folkways LP. Released in 1957, Urban Holiness Service was basically a collection of field recordings made at his church over a two-day period. William Tallmadge’s liner notes make it abundantly clear that the primary interest of the project was to exhibit evidence of the survival of Africanisms in Beck’s services. This is the last known recording on which Beck appears. In later years, other ministers—such as Frank Stranges, O. W. “Bud” Spriggs, and Bill Riddick—released UFO-themed records, each reframing the phenomenon through the filter of his own worldview. No recordings, commercial or otherwise, of Elder Charles Beck speaking on the subject of UFOs are known to exist, however. It is also not known whether he went forward with his plan to talk about them on his radio program. It is likely, though, that any such attempt would have been quashed by the program’s various producers, networks, and sponsors for being too fringe. As support for this hypothesis, any association of Beck’s name with UFOs vanishes from the record at this point.
According to the Encyclopedia of Gospel Music, Elder Charles Beck relocated to the newly independent nation of Ghana to do missionary work in 1960, and died there in 1972. This seems a fitting final chapter for a clergyman so interested in a better world for Africans and people of African descent. Ghana’s recent independence and the presidency of Kwame Nkrumah were seen by many at the time as symbols of hope for the future. And isn’t hope for a better future what Beck’s dream of 1944 was actually about? Neither Sun Ra’s claim to have traveled incorporeally to Venus, nor Beck’s account of an angel-guided prophetic vision were particularly radical when compared to other claims of the era. It must be remembered that early ufology was as much obsessed with metaphysics as it was with science, perhaps even more so. What was remarkable, and new, was that in Beck’s story African Americans engaged with futuristic technology in a struggle against oppression, and emerged the victors. It is important to note that this occurred only after white society was defeated by those very same forces. What is not specifically stated, but is implied, is what the future would hold for the black community after these events. It stands to reason that having become the heroes of the hour, along with the support of the aliens, that African Americans would now gain the respect, and perhaps the political and economic power, that had so far been denied them. This is textbook Afrofuturism.
In the histories of gospel music, the civil rights movement, and black nationalism, Elder Charles Beck is at most a minor character. But at the same time that Sun Ra was exploring the themes that were later to become known as Afrofuturism, Beck was following similar lines, apparently unaware of Ra’s activities. This leads me to two conclusions. The first is that there were certainly other African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s who were actively exploring this intersection of esotericism and identity. In fact, Sun Ra was a member of just such a group in Chicago in the 1950s, often overlooked under the dismissive term “book club.” Hopefully, in time, leads will drift to the surface of the archive that will enable scholars to further trace this important aspect of intellectual history. The second is that because early Afrofuturism was part of a wider trend, however small, any subsequent treatment of the subject should include these other voices. This in no way diminishes Sun Ra’s role as a major figure in the development of Afrofuturism, but acknowledging that there were others following the same intellectual trajectories serves to more firmly place him in context. And there is no doubt that Elder Charles Beck is part of that context.